Basic Income In Canada: What’s in a Name?

Sheila Regehr Roosevelt House

In the matter of where things stand on basic income in Canada, I find that a great deal depends on how it is named and framed. By clearing away some confusion, I think there is good reason to be optimistic about the success of the movement towards a basic income for everyone in this country.

While all the global factors that are driving renewed interest in basic income play out in Canada, from concerns about technological unemployment to democratic deficits and environmental crises, there are important practical debates specific to our country. Two key debates revolve around whether basic income threatens other social infrastructure like public services, and whether a basic income is too radical or bold an idea for a country that tends towards ‘relentless incrementalism’ (setting aside that when we have gone bold, as with medicare, we have had iconic success).

I want to start with a straightforward policy story in order to contrast it with a more recent and obscure one. In the 1960s, to address very high levels of poverty among seniors, a number of policies were conceived, including forms of basic income. One, a demogrant named Old Age Security (OAS), is a direct cash transfer to individual women and men aged 65 and over, unrelated to labour force participation. For those with little other income there is a Guaranteed Income Supplement (GIS), adjusted for family size (couples or singles), which does exactly as its name indicates. Other measures were designed to help people save for their advanced years, including public pensions and tax breaks for retirement savings.

So fighting poverty was not the only objective—security was, too. But on the key measure of poverty, the results are clear and dramatic. Poverty rates for seniors (aged 65 and over) fell quickly and steadily in the ensuing decades (creeping up again relatively recently) while for the rest of the population (aged 0-64) they have continued to fluctuate around significantly higher levels. Depth of poverty is also far less for seniors than for non-seniors living in poverty, especially when comparing single adults. When universal health care was introduced, seniors received another boost of well-being. This public service and others designed to help seniors stay active and involved were not seen to compete with essential income. OAS and GIS are forms of basic income that are named appropriately and work well.

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